10 Questions for Patrick Jordan

Patrick Jordan is a native of West Texas who is in demand across North America as a chamber and orchestral musician.  Jordan has been a member of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra since 1997, serving most recently as principal viola, and is the principal violist of the Carmel Bach Festival. Jordan is a violist with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Artistic Administrator of the Gallery Players of Niagara.

He is a member of the Eybler Quartet; look for their world premiere Analekta CD featuring the String Quartets, Op. 1 of Joseph Eybler; their collaboration with clarinettist Jane Booth, featuring works of Mozart and Backofen; and the complete String Quartets, Op. 33 of Joseph Haydn’s (released October 2012).

On May 10 the Eybler Quartet (Patrick Jordan, plus Julie Wedman, Aisslinn Nosky, and Margaret Gay) present a concert called “An Evening with Michael Kelly” at Heliconian Hall.  The concert aims to recreate an 18th-century jam in Vienna with none other than Haydn, Mozart, Dittersdorf and Wahnal. Actor R.H. Thomson will be providing the narrative through-line with readings from Kelly’s memoir and other source materials.

On the occasion of “An Evening with Michael Kelly” I ask Jordan ten questions: five about himself and five more about his preparation for that “Evening”.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

I guess we all have some narrative of our lives that informs that question. In my case, my parents each used to talk about their notion that my older sister was “my father’s kid”, my younger sister was “my mother’s kid” and I was “both of their kid”.

pat jordanPhysically, I am very like my father; there’s even a childhood story about some of his relatives visiting us from out of town, knowing basically where we lived, but they didn’t have our exact address (this is pre-cell phone days, of course). My mother asked her how she found the house and she answered, “I just drove around till I saw a kid in the front yard that looked like Don at that age!” My love of knowledge, insatiable curiosity, quick temper and a sceptical frame of mind come from my father. He also loved music and had catholic tastes, so our house was full of rock, blues, classical, all kinds of sounds. I think my strong devotion to music (and anything else) comes from my mother, who has been a teacher of learning disabled and mentally challenged children for the last forty(!) years. That’s devotion! My sometimes-too-rigid moral compass is also a gift from her.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a violist, particularly in the realm of historically-informed period performance?

Undoubtedly the best part from my perspective is the imperative to collaborate. The violist is almost never going to be the star, but is an essential part of the music. In Baroque music, because of its nature, we’re often an equal, if internal part. In classical music (ca. 1750-1825) we’re very often the motor of an ensemble, and that is a fairly powerful position, even if it means playing the same pattern of eighth notes for 12 bars straight! We also change roles constantly: one moment we’re the bass line if the lower instruments drop out or play a high melody; in the next moment, we’ll be part of a new accompanying texture, with the responsibility to  set the tempo; in the next, we’ll have five little solo notes that connect two phrases.  I have a whole raft of weird little marks I use to indicate to myself those changing roles.  I think it’s no accident that many composers and conductors played the viola – you get to experience the music from the inside.

The worst thing? Having a slightly larger instrument case than a violinist and the attendant anxiety I always feel when getting on a plane that there’ll be a problem. By the way, I regard the vast collection of viola jokes as a bonus!

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I have the pleasure of teaching a two-year academic course at the Glenn Gould Professional School, which covers string literature from 1600-present. A great deal of the time I spend listening is in the service of that – I probably present 5% of what I hear to the class, but I feel like I have to have that wider sense of various periods. I have a particularly soft spot for Ravel and Morton Feldman.

Beyond that, I listen to some blues, a bit of progressive rock, and I try to keep my ear tuned to the tastes of my 11 year old son, who’s big into pop music. All the radios in our house are tuned to CBC 1 and, during baseball season, anyway, to 590 AM. I love listening to a baseball game on the radio, having the field unfold in my mind through someone else’s description. What I watch is another issue – we don’t own a television, which has been a conscious and practical decision (my wife and I don’t want to squander an hour a day in front of one). I spent a huge amount of my youth watching movies, but I don’t do it that much anymore. I do watch music videos of various sorts, looking at the ways music is enjoyed. I also have been known to seek out videos of people cooking – there’s nothing like watching someone fry their 50,000th savoury South Indian doughnut, or stretch out three pounds of noodles by hand for the 20,000th time to get a sense of how to do it! 

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

A few years ago, I started to learn to play the lute, which I love. I fairly quickly realized that I was not, at that moment of my life, about to sprout the 2-3 hours/day that it would require to play at the level I would like to. I also am less quick to anger than I was years ago, but there’s still some work to do there.

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Without a doubt, cooking. I am a deeply ambitious and devoted amateur cook. Food was a very important part of my childhood home, and it remains so for me today. Everyone in my birth family is an excellent cook. One of my great uncles ran a butcher shop for many years outside Wichita Falls, Texas. My paternal grandmother used to run a small café in a Skellytown, Texas, population 216, and I distinctly remember sitting on a five gallon bucket of pickles (I must have been 5 or 6 years old), watching her effortlessly roll out what seemed like an endless number of perfect pie crusts in a row. I do most of the cooking in our house, and believe that sharing meals is an incredibly powerful congregating force in a family or group. In terms of what I like to cook, I grew up where barbeque and Tex-Mex were the other dominant foods, so that was the starting place for me. I had the great good fortune of spending a big part of several summers in Aix-en-Provence in my twenties, which had a huge impact on my understanding of that culture and its food. Consequently, not only do I make a mean soupe au pistou, but I was also introduced, at a very tangible and fundamental level, to a comparison of agricultural polices between North America and Europe. My tastes have widened as I’ve gone along, and I guess I have approached it serially – for a while I’ll devote a fair amount of time and energy to grasping, for example, various regional cuisines of India, or Northern Thai cuisine, or the food of Veneto or Valencia or Sichuanese food. The opportunity to travel as a working musician has been an inspiration to me in all kinds of ways – for example, I don’t think I ever would have explored the incredible fusion of flavours that the food of Macau contains, if I hadn’t spent a few days there playing a concert (and eating, and exploring the markets). My mother–in-law recently gave me the latest book by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem, and I have been learning some wonderful things there.

Five more concerning  “An Evening with Michael Kelly”, which recreates an 18th-century jam in Vienna with the Eybler Quartet.

1-What are the challenges you face with period performance?

The baroque viola is something of a red herring. Compared to the violin or keyboard or wind instruments, there’s not a huge amount of specific instruction for the instrument until the beginning of the 19th century. The general assumption is that if you played the violin, you also played the viola. There are some potential practical problems with that. For example, many of the historic violas that have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries are (or were before they were cut down in size in later years) immense. I’m not convinced that the players of the time, with an average height 30-40 centimetres less than today, would have always played them on their shoulders, perhaps preferring, like smaller gambas, to play them on their laps. Or maybe only the tall players played them! I don’t know. For better or worse, we live in an age of relative specialization, and we now have specialist baroque viola players. Maybe that’s a neologism, maybe not. The truth is, the viola works somewhat differently from the violin: it is more physical work to play, partly because the dimensions of instruments today aren’t really sufficient to sound the necessary pitches as efficiently as the violin. That’s what gives it its distinctive tone, by the way. This is not to say that many violinists don’t play the viola wonderfully, because they do, mostly in the relatively limited solo repertoire that we have. But it is, as a specialization and played routinely in an ensemble, something a bit different.

Jeanne Lamon with her colleagues

Tafelmusik Music Director Jeanne Lamon (Photographer: Sian Richards)

I started playing in my school orchestra on the viola, at the relatively old age of 11, so I am a dyed-in-the-wool violist. I began experimenting around with the baroque viola in the early 80s, as conveniently, there was an early music department at New England Conservatory (there was also a Jazz and Third Stream department, and I did some of that, too). I had made a deal with myself that I would apply myself as a journeyman to the viola until I was thirty. On my thirtieth birthday, I played for Jeanne Lamon and some of my colleagues here in Toronto, and shortly thereafter began playing regularly with Tafelmusik.

One of the great things about the scene in Toronto is the cross-pollination of musical worlds. My colleagues in the Eybler Quartet, violinists Julia Wedman and Aisslinn Nosky and ‘cellist Margaret Gay represent a wide range of experience and an incredibly copacetic assemblage of personalities. There is an old joke about the poster up at the Conservatory that reads “Established string quartet seeks two violinists and ‘cellist for concerts and recordings,” and I’m afraid I embody that joke all too fully. I have played in at least one string quartet at a time since I was 15 years old. One of them, The Boston Quartet, once had an opportunity to play for several months on a matched set of instruments, all made on similar patterns and with wood from the same trees. I remember the scales falling from my eyes, realizing that we spend a lot of time fighting different pieces of wood. When I started playing with the Eyblers, again the scales fell, this time because the artistic sensibilities, while not uniform, are an incredibly comfortable fit, and I realized how much time most groups just spend fighting with each other at one level or another.

One of the great things is the group’s openness to different kinds of programming, and different ways of “meeting” an audience.  The programme we’ll be presenting soon, “An Evening with Michael Kelly“, with R.H. Thomson, is an excellent case in point. We’re trying to give our audience something like the experience of a quartet party, but within the context of a modern public concert. We’ll be playing music of four friends from the 18th century, and people will be able to enjoy a snack and a glass of wine during the show – why put it off till intermission or the end? What kind of party is that? We also won’t be playing any single piece from beginning to end without some sort of action from R.H. Some people may be put off by that, may feel like we’re not taking the music seriously enough, but to my mind, we’re approaching it much more in the spirit in which it was conceived.

2-What do you love about  the repertoire you’re playing?

We have performed a version of this programme in many different situations. It is engineered to accommodate a wide range of pieces by the four composers, Haydn Mozart, Dittersdorf and Vanhal. In the past, I have done the readings, which was less than ideal for a couple of reasons: first, the switch back and forth between playing and reciting is a tough switch, and I think my playing suffered more than my talking; second, the course of the evening is talk, play, talk, play, which is not super inspiring. Besides the fact that R.H is a superb actor, it also frees us to underscore some of his words, which knits the evening together in a different way. It also gives us the opportunity to do some different music – most of the underscore music is drawn from operas that Michael Kelly would have known, and songs that he sang, which also gives the show another flavour and perhaps greater depth.

3-Do you have a favourite moment in the program?

There’s a story from Dittersdorf’s autobiography, in which he tells of a spectacle that required finding a bunch of bagpipers from neighbouring villages. We’ve created an underscore of a minuet of his that features an imitation of bagpipes, and I think that moment beautifully shows how thin the line is between popular and art music.

4-How do you feel about the relevance of music & the performing arts, particularly the music you play, as a modern citizen?

I think the music we play is a remarkably strong and durable thread or bunch of threads in the fabric of our culture. I think the trend toward period performance in the last 30-40 years and the attendant resurrection of a large swath of repertoire, has strengthened it further. It also seems to me that live performance is enjoying a new life these days, as people expand their definitions of what a performance can be, outside of the standard concert experience. Ironically, the ubiquity of recorded music is an ally here – people have not forgotten that it actually requires someone who is capable of creating the experience, and there’s still a thrill and delight in being there in person.

I have observed a couple of things over the years:

  • First, a lot of people come to this music (or come back to this music) later in life. Maybe it’s a result of greater disposable income and time, maybe the nature of the music invites a kind of patience and reflection that we develop, if we’re lucky, later in life, maybe a combination of those or other things.
  • Second, no audience member who talks about their own playing experiences has ever said to me, “God I am so glad I quit piano when I did!” They all say they wish they’d continued, that they miss it, or at the very least that they knew they were never great, and saw what it took to get there. Now, that may be a self-selecting sample, but through legitimate research, we know the number one indicator for a person attending a concert today, is that they have had experience as a performer when younger –  singing in a choir, playing in band, playing in orchestra, whatever. And I’m not talking here about having gone to hear the orchestra when you were on a grade 5 field trip, this is actually doing the deed.

There is some fantastic music education going on in this country, and I am totally behind that. If young people don’t have opportunities to participate in the music, we’re robbing them of their own culture, and we’re robbing ourselves of an audience in future generations. I do despair, however, when after playing for a group of young people, I go to the subway station or some other public space and hear EXACTLY THE SAME MUSIC I JUST PLAYED being used as adolescent repellent. What kind of message does that send?

5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Eybler Quartet’s website (click to go there)

I had three very influential teachers, Susan Schoenfeld in Texas, and Walter Trampler and Eugene Lehner in Boston. Susan really taught me how the viola in particular works, and gave me an incredible toolbox for solving technical and musical problems. Mr. Trampler, curious as it may sound, very much encouraged me to pursue period performance, after hearing me play a few times (I remember he said something like, “You really seem to have something to offer in this music, and it doesn’t sound bad, either!” – you have to take what you can get!), and Mr. Lehner  taught me how to play chamber music, and how to read a score more like a composer than a player. I was also greatly encouraged by a dear colleague in Boston, Scott Metcalfe, who on a walk one gorgeous spring day in Pittsburgh in 1991, said “I’m not much for telling people what to do, but you ought to be a baroque viola player – the world needs a good one.”


The Eybler Quartet present a concert called “An Evening with Michael Kelly”

  • Friday, May 10, 2013, 8:00 p.m.
    Heliconian Club,
    35 Hazelton Avenue, Toronto
  • Sunday, May 12, 2013, 2 p.m.
    Rodman Hall Arts Centre
    109 Saint Paul Crescent, St. Catharines

Here’s a video of the Eybler Quartet playing the Finale from Haydn’s Opus 33 #1

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1 Response to 10 Questions for Patrick Jordan

  1. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

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